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Free State came into being 90 years ago this week

Flashback to the turbulent beginning of Saorstát Éireann, which was hurtling towards civil war even as it gained statehood.

THE SIXTH OF December this year found the country reeling in the aftermath of the sixth austerity Budget in a row.

The special anniversary that fell on Thursday went largely unnoticed: 90 years ago on that day, the Irish Free State or Saorstát Éireann officially came into being.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, which put an end to the War of Independence against Britain, was approved by the second Dáil on 7 January 1922. But the margin of approval was narrow – 64 votes for; 57 votes against – and led to the resignation of Éamon de Valera as president of the Dáil two days later. Arthur Griffith stepped into the role of president and the country began to hurtle towards civil war, with de Valera leading the anti-Treaty rebels and Michael Collins commander-in-chief of the National Army and chairman of the Provisional Government.

By the time the Free State came into existence 11 months later, both Griffith and Collins were dead, the latter killed in an ambush in Cork, and the country was in the grip of the bloody violence which would mark the civil war until a ceasefire in May 1923.

Flashbacks to 1922

  • The full heated debate in the Dáil on the day of the vote on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 7 January 1922, is available to view in the Oireachtas parliamentary debates archive here.

Harry Boland, then a close friend of Michael Collins but who would later be shot by the Irish Free State Army, opened the debate by saying he was against the Treaty as, “in my opinion, it denies a recognition of the Irish nation”. He said:

I object to it on the ground of principle, and my chief objection is because I am asked to surrender the title of Irishman and accept the title of West Briton.

Poignantly, he refers to Collins frequently in his statement to the Dáil as “my friend” and there is some interaction between the two where they call each other by their first names.

On passing of the Treaty by seven votes, Collins asks permission to make a statement and appears to appeal that the opposing sides do everything in their power to stop the country descending into violence, a sentiment with which Éamon de Valera agrees.

MR. M. COLLINS: I ask your permission to make a statement. I do not regard the passing of this thing as being any kind of triumph over the other side. I will do my best in the future, as I have done in the past, for the nation. What I have to say now is, whether there is something contentious about the Republic—about the Government in being—or not, that we should unite on this: that we will all do our best to preserve the public safety (hear, hear).

PRESIDENT DE VALERA: Hear, hear.

As it would turn out, neither could prevent the civil war to come in which – as different estimates have had it – anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 people died, both combatants and civilians.

  • This photograph shows Michael Collins, marked with an ‘X’, Kevin O’Higgins and WT Cosgrave (before and after Collins), leaving Dublin Castle after a surrender ceremony by the British on 16 January 1922. Pic: Topham Picturepoint/PA Images.
  • The Provisional Government then went straight that same day to Dublin’s Mansion House, for the formal ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Arthur Griffiths is seen in the centre left, with glasses, and Michael Collins is facing the speaker. Pic: PA Archive.

  • Michael Collins, by then Chairman of the Irish Free State and Commander-in-Chief of the National Army, drums up support for the Treaty in College Green on 18 March 1922. Pic: Press Association Images.

  • The Four Courts on fire after being bombarded by National Army forces on 28 and 29 June, 1922. Anti-Treaty forces had taken the complex over on 14 April. A huge swathe of Irish public records were lost in the fire. Pic: Wikimedia Commons.

  • An injured Anti-Treaty man is supported by a fellow fighter in Dublin on 13 July 1922. Over 500 Anti-Treaty fighters were taken as prisoners after the battle died down in the city. Pic: Press Association Images.

  • The funeral of Arthur Griffith on 16 August 1922: pictured here are General Richard Mulcahy and Michael Collins, who would die in an ambush one week later.

  • This image is from 1921, and shows the wedding of Kevin O’Higgins. By the end of 1922, it was a wedding photo loaded with poignancy. It represented the internecine brutality of the Civil War: O’Higgins, centre, is pictured here with  Éamon de Valera on the left and his best man Rory O’Connor on the right. The groom and the best man were to end up on opposite sides of the war to follow – and O’Higgins ended up signing his former friend’s death warrant. O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey had been captured at the fall of the Four Courts and executed on 8 December 1922 in reprisal for the killing of a Free State member of parliament Seán Hales. Pic: Wikimedia Commons.

‘Secret’ Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921 now online>

New light shed on death of Michael Collins>

Anglo-Irish Treaty correspondence released in eBook>

How holy ‘apparitions’ pressed pause on War of Independence>

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